He’s running against the elites, the establishment, and anyone other than real Americans trying to take up space in America. He cusses, shoots from the hip, refers during speeches to the length and girth of his penis, and riles supporters up about their own victimhood. Sound like any campaigns that have recently made us bleed from our ears and eyes? But hold on, because this is the story of Andrew Jackson: populist rabble-rouser and genocidal founder of the Democratic Party. And in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’s 2006 rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory (the terrific Ryan Walker) is also a sensitive male emo-rocker. Stacey Koloski directs a raucous, unnerving, bracingly sustained production of his political hijinx, for Mad Horse.
After a hardscrabble childhood in Tennessee, Jackson becomes the ringleader for frontiersmen who feel dissed by Washington. Walker’s Jackson takes to the microphone with crass, babyface charisma while, behind him, a game and witty three-piece punk band (Shannon Oliver, Brendan Daly, and Mike O’Neal, who is also music director) rocks out. And Jackson’s fans, dressed in flannels, leather vests, and the occasional coonskin hat, shout back, in pulsing, hopped-up, delighted rage. They sing, “Populism, yea, yea!” They shout to Jackson, “We want to fuck you! And we hate the tariff!”
Bloody is satire, cartoonish and brash. The script keeps things bright and dirty, riddled with caricatures, anachronistic jokes and allusions; and, at intervals, a sweet, green-visored “Storyteller” (Christine Louise Marshall, unforgettably) steers her motorized wheelchair in to give history lessons. Meanwhile, the musical numbers sometimes thrum and thrust, sometimes turn to sensitive rock-balladry, as Jackson sings about, say, mutual blood-letting with his beloved, Rachel (Allison McCall, nicely balancing infatuation and edge).
The theater set-up feels a little like the old Geno’s, narrow, close, and loud, and Koloski’s ensemble keeps everything taut, fraught, and full of spirited fuck-you. Walker has a strong voice, as befits a lead; much of the rest of the ensemble embraces a cheeky, lo-fi tonality that feels like the sonic essence of an angry, DIY-punk America. As cast members careen in and out of the Oval Office or rally and chant, the ensemble sustains a volatile, visceral rebel energy that, we sense, there is no reasoning with.
Walker’s Jackson, pouting, carries his self-absorbed hurt as he might a small, adorably helpless animal. But when he’s at the mic, he’s on-message in making rage of victimization; in a scary-funny scene vibrating with ire, a woman vibrates with arousal: “Oh, you’re so angry.”
Drolly staged scenes of Jackson’s havoc ensue. Back in Washington is a tableau of worry: James Monroe (Mark Rubin) and John C. Calhoun (Adam Ferguson) furrow brows as Henry Clay (Meredythe Dehne Lindsey) nervously strokes a mink stole and Martin Van Buren (Michael Shawn Lynch) goes down with gusto on an éclair. Performers Amanda Eaton and Adam Ferguson act out vivid grotesques — a drawling Southern senator; a Tennessee redneck — and Dominic Wolfgang Wallace nails the smoldering cognitive dissonance of Black Fox, Jackson’s emissary to the Indian tribes. And Lynch gives Van Buren a telling arc, from decadent, schmucky senator to haggard Secretary of State in a head-set, desperately trying to rein in a cowboy from his cocaine, pizzas, and literal office cheerleader (Megan Tripaldi, with a wily sense of the absurd).
Whew, right? Watching this show in the age of Trump is an ambivalent experience: it comes too late for warning, too soon for catharsis. It comes off as a satirical screed, at once sending up and wallowing in our country’s tainted history. And that history looks so like what we’re living now that our laughter is a little queasy. “The past isn’t dead,” as another Southerner once put it, even more right than we knew. “It isn’t even past.”
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman; book by Alex Timbers; directed by Stacey Koloski; music direction by Mike O’Neal | At Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through October 15 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20-23 |
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